John Spilsburys Dissected World

Posted on the 2023-10-21 12:35:05 by Abbott Antiques & Collectables.
John Spilsburys Dissected World

It has been long accepted that some of the earliest educational tools were jigsaw-like maps, designed in the 18th century by John Spilsbury, a London-based cartographer and apprentice to the Royal Geographer to King George III, Thomas Jeffreys. He created these puzzles, known as “dissected maps,” by pasting a paper map onto a thin piece of mahogany and then used a fine marquetry saw to carefully cut the completed map into pieces.

Sensing a business opportunity, he created these dissected puzzles on eight themes - the World, Europe, Asia, Africa, America, England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. A London street directory, published by Mortimer, from 1763 provides his listing as: ' Spilsbury, John. Engraver and Map Dissector in Wood, in order to facilitate the Teaching of Geography'. Although Spilsbury was initially credited with creating the first dissected map around the mid 1760s, recent research has produced disputing pieces of evidence against those claims*. Also Professor Jill Shefrin, a rare book librarian and researcher, states in her book 'Educating the Child in Enlightenment Britain' discovered earlier references to dissected maps made by Madame de Beaumont, a French educator and author. Reference to these is included in a letter written by Mary Delaney, the wife of the Dean of Downpatrick Cathedral in Ireland, to her sister, in 1759, , in which she wrote, “I wish I could tell how to get a set of Madame Beaumont’s wooden maps”. Similarly, further archive material, dated 1762, in a letter sent by Mrs. Caroline Fox to her sister Emily about how her son 'learns geography on the Beaumont wooden maps'.

A number of Spilsbury's 18th-century dissected maps have survived. His first dissected map was called “Europe Divided Into Its Kingdoms” and featured pieces cut mostly along geopolitical boundaries. These created 'jig saw(n) puzzles' were used to teach geography even to the children of the family of King George III and Queen Charlotte, by their governess Lady Charlotte Finch, with many of them being sold to elite boarding schools and to more affluent households and far too expensive for other classes. In the same letter by Mary Delaney, aforementioned, she notes that she believes 'those of England, Scotland, and Ireland come to two guineas'. Accounting for inflation, this was a cost of roughly £215 in the eighteenth century (or about $277 US).

In Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park (published in 1814), impoverished Fanny Price is mocked by her wealthier cousins who declared, 'Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together'. Most certainly, the popularity of dissected map puzzles grew and by the end of the 18th century, London was home to nearly twenty jigsaw makers. The method of construction continued, as Spilsbury had made them originally; it was not until the late 1800s that cardboard started to replace wood as the backing, which lowered the cost of the dissected puzzles. The use of the word “jigsaw” to describe this type of puzzle originated during the 1880s.

*Norgate, M. (2007). Cutting borders: Dissected maps and the origins of the jigsaw puzzle. The Cartographic Journal, 44(4), 342-350.